Ice Network

Chen unable to overcome boot issues in Helsinki

Sans reliable backup skates, U.S. champ finishes sixth in worlds debut
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Nathan Chen's world championships debut was a disappointing one, compounded by the fact that his usually reliable pair of boots began to break down during the U.S. champions free skate. -Getty Images

HELSINKI, Finland -- Everyone has a favorite pair of shoes, the ones so comfortable you will have them repaired over and over again and then wear them even after no repair will really hold them securely together.

For figure skaters, that situation is compounded by the stresses from torque and impact they put on their most important shoes: the boots with blades they wear in competition.

There frequently comes a time when a skater must decide between the risk in wearing battered boots and the risk in wearing a pair that is barely broken in -- or not broken in at all.

Such a moment occurred for Nathan Chen early in the week leading up to the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, when the boots he had been wearing for three and a half weeks began to fall apart.

This time, he chose duct tape over new boots, because the other pair he brought with him to Finland was brand new.

Not having a backup pair ready to go is a mistake Chen is unlikely to make again, given how much he felt boot issues had contributed to a badly flawed free skate Saturday afternoon inside Hartwall Arena. He redid the program on the fly out of worry the boots would not let him perform the originally planned jumps properly.

It is one of the things the 17-year-old learned after two disappointing performances that would lead to a sixth-place finish in his world championships debut.

Of course, his fall on a triple axel in the short program had nothing to do with boots. And, most of his mistakes in the free owed to human imperfections rather than equipment, even if the boot problems preoccupied him.

"Skaters always have issues with their body, their minds, their skates," Chen said. "Little things can have a big impact on your performance. It's whoever is able to deal with that best. Today I wasn't able to do that."

Chen still skated fearlessly, attempting a record six quadruple jumps. All were judged fully rotated, but he fell on two (the first, a lutz, ended a 20-quad success streak; the second came on a salchow), and he and received negative Grades of Execution (GOEs) on two others.

Even with that, he finished fourth in the free skate behind the three medalists, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan and China's Boyang Jin.

"It wasn't at all the program I wanted to do," Chen said. "There were a bunch of mistakes.

"I'm sorry (about) the things I did. Now I just put it behind me and move on."

He had begun his first season on the international senior level as an outsider. He finished it as a world medal contender, and he'll begin the upcoming season as an Olympic medal contender.

This has been the longest competitive season of his career, and the wear and tear adds up, even on a young body. He had landed 48 straight jumps over three previous competitions before falling in his sixth-place short program here Thursday.

"It was a long season for me, and I'm pretty exhausted," Chen said. 

Chen's finish in Helsinki, combined with a seventh by fellow American Jason Brown, hit the magic number of 13, which is the maximum total a country can receive in order land three spots at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Even with a fall on a quad toe attempt (Brown has never landed a quad in competition) he pulled together a solid performance, with sparkling spins.

"Obviously, I would have loved to skate a clean program and land the toe, but I got the job done, and we walked away with an extra spot for the Olympics," Brown said. "That was kind of the main goal, leaving here with an extra spot."

While Brown came here knowing it would be impossible to reach the podium without a quad, Chen knew he could get there after having done a record five clean quads in winning each of his previous two competitions -- the U.S. Championships and the Four Continents Championships. Adding the sixth quad likely would have pushed him past Jin if Chen had skated cleanly.

Hanyu (321.59 points), Uno (319.31) and Jin (303.58) made history with the first sweep of a world men's podium by figure skaters from Asian countries.

Two-time defending champion Javier Fernández of Spain, who took a four-point lead into the free skate, slogged into fourth (301.19). Three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada was fifth at 295.16.

Chen scored 290.72. Brown was far back at 269.57.

The top six finishers would attempt 24 quads. Sixteen would get positive grades, four each by Hanyu and Jin.

Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic and world champion, pulled himself up from fifth after the short program with a magnificent free skate that was both athletic and artistic, by far his best in a global championship. It deservedly received the highest score ever (223.20), nearly three points higher than the record he had set 16 months ago at the Grand Prix Final."

"I demonstrated everything I was capable of for the moment, my whole package so to say," Hanyu said. "I wanted to do five quads but did not have enough energy."

Chen had to follow Hanyu immediately, skating onto an ice surface being cleared of dozens of stuffed animals thrown to celebrate the Japanese star's dazzling performance.

"It was difficult but kind of expected," Chen said. "It wasn't that big an issue for me."

Of more concern was his right boot, which was collapsing to the outside as he attempted quad lutzes. He fell on one in the six-minute warmup and got a technical adjustment from coach Rafael Arutunian that worked to a degree.

Chen could not will mind over matter again when he went up for the quad lutz-triple toe loop combination that opened his four and a half minute free skate. He fell hard on the lutz, looked at the boot while he got up and immediately began rejiggering the program, replacing the second planned quad lutz with a second quad toe and adjusting where he would put combinations.

That involved making sure he did not repeat any jump more than twice or do more than three combinations. Such jumps become invalid.

"I have multiple plans for a program already in my head, and I know the rules pretty well in my head, so I was able to really quickly alter what I need to do," he said.

Chen changes boots every month or two. He had put aside a pair after each of his last three competitions. In late February, he began using the pair he wore Saturday, but they did not last as long as the previous ones had.

"I need to make sure in (the future) I have a bunch of new pairs I can change going into competition," Chen said.

Being comfortable as an old shoe has its limits.